Fennel comes from the Umbelliferae family and is a hardy, perennial herb. The common garden Fennel, Foeniculum Vulgare, can grow to a height of 2.1m (7ft) and spread out to over 45cm (18in). The flowers are yellow and it has soft green feathery foliage, in fact it can easily be mistaken for Dill. Fennel is a hardy perennial which grows naturally over most of Europe and is considered indigenous to the Mediterranean area. It has spread right down to India and was introduced to America in the 1800’s. In the UK it seems to flourish in the South where it grows wild from North Wales southward, mostly found in costal area perhaps as it loves limestone.
The ancient Greeks would use it as a slimming aid and apparently there is some association with the word ‘Marathon’ which means to grow thin.
The ancient Chinese believed that it could cure snake bites, these day’s you are best off going straight to a hospital.
Well known to the Romans who cultivated Fennel for its edible shoots and aromatic fruits. Much revered by Pliny the Elder (aka Caius Plinius Secundus) who used it in twenty two remedies. He even thought that it sharpened the sight of snakes. In fact many English herbalists thought that Fennel could sharpen ones sight.
“So Gladiators fierce and rude; mingled it with their daily food. And he who battled and subdued; a wreath of fennel wore” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882
In medieval times fennel was used in conjunction with St Johns Wort to keep away witchcraft and other evil things. Personally I think that this might have originated for the fact that it can be used as an insect repellant.
Fennel is thought to be one of the nine herbs held sacred by the Anglo-saxons the others are still not totally certain but they seem to be Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Greater Plantain (Plantago major), Watercress (Nastrurtium officinale), Wild Chamomile (Matricaria recutita ), Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), Crab Apple (pyrus malus) , Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) and Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare ) and one that remains a mystery
When growing from seed Jekka suggests that you plant pots in early spring and keep at a temperature of 15-21¡C before planting out. I would be careful growing like this as fennel can bolt when transplanted. If you insist on growing from seeds then I would suggest using newpaper pots.
If you want to plant straight out then ensure there is no risk of frost in a well drained loamy soil. Not a big fan of clay soil, but can be grown by adding sharp sand to the seed drills. It will still grow in pretty poor conditions. As it can grow to such a height fennel will need to be sheltered from strong winds.
Being a herb that thrives in Mediterranean it is a bit of sun worshipper. Keep it away from Dill or Coriander when planting, this will ensure that you get a full crop of seed as it will reduce cross pollination. Sow seeds about 38-50cm apart (15-20 inches) at a depth of about 1cm (half inch)
Hugh Furnley Whittingstall from the River Cottage TV program grows his fennel in a poly tunnel which will add a couple of months to the growing season and for him created really succulent, bulbous fennel bulbs.
As with most herbs and vegetables Fennel will need a good watering over dry periods.
Established plants will not need winter protection as they will die back during the coldest months. However, if you live somewhere where temperatures will fall to below -10¡C (14¡F) then some protection will be useful. I use a pop (soda) bottle with the bottom cut off to protect my herbs during the winter and this works a treat
Cut back the old growth in winter months.
The young stems and leaves can be picked when you need them and the seeds are collected when ripe for sowing or when dried for use in the kitchen.
The bulbs of Florence Fennel should be watered well in dry weather and soil needs to be drawn around the bottom of the bulbs when it reaches the size of a golf ball. After it has reached this size it should more than double in size over the next 2-3 weeks this is when it is ready to harvest.
Watch out for greenfly and perhaps it might be and idea to grow Garlic, Chervil or Yarrow nearby. If you have trouble with whitefly then Fennel is a good herb to grow as it will repel them.
Container size should be 25-40cm (10-16 inches) wide and at least 30cm (12 inches) deep. Feed it with a liquid feed every month, during the hotter months.
Often used to flavour fish and the leaves go well stuffed into a trout before cooking. The seeds along with marjoram, thyme, summer savory, basil, rosemary, fennel seeds and lavender make up the famous mix of herbs that are known as Herbs de Provence.